Shameless Commercialism, 2009 Edition 

Another year, another calendar. Check it out at Cafepress: thirteen of our photos from around Kitakami, Iwate, and other nearby places in Tohoku! Just click the calendar to take a closer look.
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Safety Driver 

Late at night, especially on weekends, there's a common sight on the streets of Kitakami: pairs of cars, one with a taxi-style light on the roof. But if you look closely, the printing on the taxi light doesn't say "taxi". It says "daikou".

Daikou is a service for people who drive to a bar, pub, party, karaoke, or whatever, then drink. Drinking and driving laws here are draconian, so even if you've only had one drink all evening, you can't drive home. Instead, you call a daikou company. They arrive with a car (the one with the light on it) and two drivers. One of them drives you home (or to the next party) in your car, and the other car follows to take the driver to the next fare.

Amazingly, this service is cheaper than taking a taxi, so it's very popular.

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Pie Are Square 

A couple of weeks ago, we visited the local model shop. Usually when we drop by, the owner's wife sets out tea and coffee and we visit for a bit after Matthew's done his shopping. This time, she showed me a holiday edition of a Japanese cooking magazine, which got us to talking about apple pie. She apparently had a pie crust in her freezer, which she tried to give me. I had to refuse, citing our lack of an oven. Matthew had told them that he'd be back in a few days with a visiting train buddy. She likes to give us things, so I wondered whether a pie would be forthcoming.

Sure enough, when Matthew went back on Monday, he received a pie. A Japanese apple pie, that is.

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Holiday Finery 

The trees in front of the Kitakami city office, all dressed up for Christmas. The name of the decoration scheme is "Ribbon Showers."
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You Know You're In a Big City When. . .  

. . . there's at least one giant TV mounted on a building downtown.

This is Morioka's giant TV. Kitakami, alas, isn't big enough for one.
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Old Non-Habits Die Hard 

The genkan, or entryway, serves an important purpose in Japanese buildings. It is much more of a transition zone between inside and outside than in most American homes. When we enter someone's home or an office building, we remove our shoes and coats in the genkan before we enter; similarly, when we leave we put our outerwear back on in the genkan. Except that putting my coat on in the entryway is the one custom I just can't get after a year and a half.

We've put a lot of effort into learning many of the niceties of daily Japanese life and do a reasonable job of being polite members of society. So it's especially frustrating that something as basic as not wearing my coat all the way inside won't stick with me. Actually, it's more embarrassing than that: it wasn't until last week that it really sank in that wearing my coat inside was not daijoubu. And I had that unfortunate revelation as I was leaving a classroom at one of the companies where we teach, coat on. After that, it was like the Japanese etiquette mistake version of the walk of shame — walking quickly, kind of slinking, looking at absolutely no one as I went.

Mortification still fresh in my mind, I returned to the company today for my regular class, firmly reminding myself that I would not put my coat on until I reached the genkan. Which I successfully managed to do, but only after wearing my coat most of the way to the classroom when I got there.

Maybe I need to tie my coat to my shoes with string.
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Serving Suggestion? 

Although we've been here about a year and a half, Japanese packaged foods continue to surprise us. Last night, we made a bowl of ramen that we'd received at a community event a few weeks ago (community events in Japan always involve giveaways of household items). The picture on the package showed some garnishes like scallions, dried bamboo, and a thin slice of cow tongue. Tongue isn't a common ramen accompaniment. We assumed that it represented a serving suggestion and thought the inclusion of tongue kind of odd. The picture made sense, however, when we opened the package and found noodles, soup base, sauce, and a small package of dried garnishes that included . . . a thin slice of cow tongue.
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Going Dark 

Just a quick note to let our readers know we won't be updating much for the next week or so; we should be back in full swing by mid-December, though!
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Studying the Karaoke Way 

That Japanese people love karaoke is a stereotype, but it's a well-grounded one. Allowing that there are some who dislike karaoke, the vast majority of our friends enjoy it. Any group of people out having a good time is likely to end up in a karaoke bar or "box" (where you can rent a room for a private party with your friends).

It's hard not to get into the spirit when you're with a bunch of people unironically having fun singing shmoopy love ballads, TV show theme songs, and classic American or British rock songs. At first we chose songs from the (rather limited) selection available in English, but as we've been exposed to more and more Japanese music, we've branched out to sing our favorite Japanese songs, too.

It takes a lot of practice, but it's great fun. As an added bonus, it's not unusual to find examples of grammar we've recently studied. Of course, we learn new vocabulary, too, and get lots of reinforcement for the vocabulary of drama: tears, rain, new love, broken hearts, and fiery passion. Natural exposure is really important for gaining fluency, so karaoke is great for improving our language skills.

That's why we spent the afternoon studying The Blue Hearts, The Cro-magnons, Shonen Knife, Color Bottle, Thelma Aoyama, Kyu Sakamoto, and others.
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Sun-drying persimmons are a common sight around Japan in the fall.

People hang the persimmons from a pole for a couple of weeks, until they shrivel and darken. They then store the dried persimmons, called hoshigaki, for snacking on during the winter.
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